Speaking Tips: Manuscript, But Don’t Read

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Every public speaker, including preachers, tends to develop a system for writing their talks, sermons, or messages which works best for them. Additionally, there are different approaches to what a speaker brings with them up on the stage, ranging from: no notes, an outline, or a manuscript.

Every Speaker/Preacher’s Worst Nightmare

All speakers and preachers are trying to avoid two extremes: a wooden reading of a manuscript, and a rambling failure to say anything coherent, cohesive, or substantial.

I remember watching a friend of mine preach an excellent message to a group of about 80 people, based on 3 bullet points on an index card in his Bible. Not long after that, I attempted to do the same thing: I showed up on a Wednesday night to preach to our fledgling church plant in Eger, Hungary. My text was Mark 7:1-13. I started working through the text and the bullet points I had written down… and, after about 5 minutes, I had run out of things to say. Surely there was more that could have been said;  I had even planned more things to say – but my mind went completely blank, and I couldn’t remember any of it. So what did I do? I just started repeating what I had already said, and rambling. It was a train wreck. God bless those people for being so patient with me, and giving me time and space to grow as a preacher!

In another instance, years later, I witnessed a friend of mine do just the opposite: he stood up to speak, he had great content, however he simply read his notes verbatim, never looking up from them, and never varying the tone of his voice. It was a failure on the other end of the spectrum.

Given the choice between the two: it’s always better to go with good content. But delivery absolutely matters. If you have good things to say, but you present it poorly, you will lose your listeners and fail to achieve your goal.

For more on this, and a great analogy about coffee, check out this conversation I had with Mike Neglia about homiletics (the art of preaching): Episode 45: Telling a Compelling Story

Never Waste Another Moment

As is often the case, the experience of crashing and burning at that Wednesday night Bible caused me change my approach to preaching. Frankly, I had not done justice to the text, nor had I respected the time of my listeners. I determined that I would never waste a single moment of my listeners’ time again, nor would I fail to teach a passage well due to my own lack of preparation.

From that time on, I started making more detailed notes. I began manuscripting my sermons: literally writing down every word I would say.

This process is not without its pitfalls: First of all, it is very time consuming. Secondly, you run the risk of becoming that guy who reads his notes and puts everyone to sleep, because despite the fact that what you have to say may be good, no one cares because your presentation is crushingly boring.

However, there are also many benefits to manuscripting:

The Benefits of Manuscripting Your Talk or Sermon

1. Intentionality and precision

Manuscripting takes time, but it also causes you to slow down and think about every word that you write. There is a level of intentionality and precision which means that no words are wasted. This allows you to fit in more quality content and honor the time of your listeners by never wasting a moment. The result is shorter, more concise, more focused messages.

2. The creation of an archive

By manuscripting my sermons, I have created an archive of now 14 years of sermons. Recently I received a call from a friend who had an emergency and needed someone to fill in for him at his church on a Wednesday night. I was able to pull up a sermon on my iPad and preach it without any stress or preparation, beyond the obvious spiritual preparation of prayer and seeking God about what to share.

Additionally, I can send a manuscript of one of my sermons to someone who has questions about a particular passage, if I have taught on it before. When teaching a passage I have taught before, I can pull up an old manuscript and see exactly what I said about that passage in the past. Having an archive opens up many possibilities, especially when it comes to publishing, or creating a commentary, for example.

Don’t Memorize Your Talk, Know Your Content

A friend reached out to me today asking for tips on how to prepare for a speech he will give to a group of several hundred people tonight. He asked if he should try to memorize his talk. My advice was this: Don’t memorize your talk. That takes too much time, and it can come across just as wooden as someone who reads their manuscript. Instead, write down your opening, your ending and your main points, and then, focus on knowing your content deeply, rather than memorizing it.

A Hybrid Model

Although I manuscript my sermons, I don’t read them. In fact, over time my manuscripts have morphed into a hybrid of an outline and a manuscript. If anything, you might say that they have become very detailed outlines.

I believe that every message should have a progression; your goal is to take people on a journey, moving them from where they are to where you believe they need to be. To do this, beginning with an outline before writing is absolutely essential.

My goal in writing my notes is that if I draw a complete blank while I’m standing up there, I’ll have my notes to fall back on. Another goal is to be able to open those notes up in the future, and have everything I need in that document, to be able to stand up and preach that same message again.

Two Loves and a Question

In the end, every speaker and preacher needs to find the model that works best for them. Good preaching is driven by two loves: love for God and love for people. The question is: how can we best serve God and serve people?

What model has worked best for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

[Negative: the Status Quo] But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

Charles Spurgeon on George Whitefield

“Whitefield’s sermons were not eloquent, but were rough and unconnected. But it was not in the words themselves, but in the manner in which he delivered them, the earnestness with which he felt them, the pouring out of his soul as he preached them. When you heard him preach, you felt like you were listening to a man who would die if he could not preach. Where, where is such earnestness today? One sad proof that the Church is in need of revival is the absence of earnestness which was once seen in Christian pulpits.” [1]